Toy Vey: The Rabbi Selling Kosher Vibrators
Within ultra-Orthodox Jewish culture, physical contact between unmarried men and women is forbidden, as is viewing sexually suggestive imagery of any kind. A ban on pornography is a given, but even a Victoria’s Secret catalog is off limits for devout followers, who are typically seen wearing black coats and long dresses. Sex is one of the religion’s most taboo subjects, something couples might discuss quietly among themselves or with a rabbi—and no one else.
Religious leaders aren’t usually the best advisers on how to spice things up in the bedroom, but Orthodox couples struggling to sustain passionate marriages are finding a savior in Rabbi Natan Alexander. Men and women dissatisfied with their love lives are making pilgrimages to the Judaean Mountains near Jerusalem, where Alexander may prescribe them a Sqweel. The device, he explains in incrementally hushed volumes at a winery by his home in the Gush Etzion settlement, is a sex toy of rotating silicone.
Alexander, a boyish-looking 34-year-old, says ultra-Orthodox women who grew up secular often come to him hoping he’ll encourage their husbands to go the extra distance between the sheets, to do things they were accustomed to before becoming religious. Alexander readily gives his blessing, but ultra-Orthodox men don’t always listen. The rabbi is a self-described religious nationalist, meaning he’s devout but accepts most aspects of modern life, and that makes some ultra-Orthodox people, or haredim, as it’s referred to in Hebrew, skeptical of his authority. “Of course, I could find them rabbis, but these women come from serious haredi families, who aren’t going to listen to a religious nationalist,” says Alexander, sitting among fellow yarmulke-wearing patrons. “Instead, I offered to find her the right product that replaces the man.”
Despite numerous religious restrictions on intimacy—including, for one subset of ultra-Orthodox called Ger Hasidic, a ban on kissing each other’s bodies or intercourse after midnight—most sex toys are kosher. The shopping experience usually isn’t. Stores that carry such products often have posters or packaging featuring scantily clad models, and the websites can be even more risqué. Alexander saw an opportunity, and last year he started an online sex toy marketplace that God would approve of. You won’t find any racy images or vulgar language on his website, Better2gether. He personally approves each product the store sells to make sure the package and contents are free of anything that may be offensive to the Orthodox eye. The name of the site and its listings promote spousal intimacy, because, as Alexander puts it, “It’s not about my orgasm. It's about our orgasm.”
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox population is a significant and growing market, making up about 11 percent of the country’s 8.3 million people. The community is expected to comprise about 18 percent of Israel’s population within 15 years, according to government statistics. Consumers around the world spent $22.8 billion in 2014 on sexual wellness products, which include contraceptives, lingerie, lubricants, and sex toys, and sales are projected to grow to $32 billion by 2019, according to market-research firm TechNavio. Shopping for a vibrator has become slightly less awkward since Wal-Mart Stores and other mainstream retailers began stocking them a few years ago. The products have struggled to catch on in conservative communities around the world, however, partly because of the stigma associated with buying them. If Alexander’s model proves successful in Israel, it could one day translate to potential buyers in conservative sectors of other religions.
But gaining acceptance within the ultra-Orthodox community will be a challenge. From childhood, boys and girls are separated, and sex is a topic rarely addressed by parents or teachers. They spend their days studying Jewish texts, focusing little, if at all, on sexual intimacy. That leaves them uninformed in matters of sex into adulthood, and they resort to books or rabbis for advice. “You’re talking about people who not only have absolutely no personal experience with someone of the opposite sex, but no source of a precedent in their heads,” says David Ribner, a certified sex therapist, ordained rabbi, and co-author of The Newlywed Guide to Physical Intimacy. “They don’t read novels; they don’t go to the movies; they don’t listen to the radio; they don’t watch TV. So how are they supposed to know what to do when they get into bed? How do you know what parts go in where, what to do with your legs—not to mention their sexual organs?”
Naomi Marmon Grumet, founder of the Eden Center, a nonprofit organization in Jerusalem addressing Jewish women’s issues, says she’s encountered several cases in which an ultra-Orthodox couple sought fertility treatments after years of marriage. In those instances, gynecologists found that the women appeared to still be virgins. The couples were instructed by their rabbis to “sleep together,” without giving further details. “When you go to an extreme on modesty, and therefore you don’t talk about it, you send extremely unhealthy messages, which are repressive and cause shame and guilt,” says Grumet. “We don’t have to use euphemisms, and just as we talk about other things openly, we can address this in a way that is respectful to” Jewish law, she says. The growing ultra-Orthodox population indicates a technical ability to procreate, but enjoying it is another matter, Grumet says.
Alexander was born in Sydney to secular Jewish parents who discussed everything. As a teen deepening his religious fervor to Judaism, he would still go to nightclubs, as well as watch pornography. His mother would tell him that the urge to masturbate was nothing to fear. His rabbi would tell him otherwise. Alexander progressed deeper into his religion anyway, becoming an educator and a community organizer in Sydney.
During a three-year stint teaching in Johannesburg, Alexander and his wife began to experience marital troubles after the birth of their third child. He sought out Woolf Solomon, a local Jewish sex therapist, for advice. Solomon was treating other religious Jewish couples, some of whom he told to use vibrators and lubricants to improve the experience. “So I started thinking: Where are these people supposed to buy this stuff?” Alexander recalls. “That’s kind of when the light turned on.”
Alexander left South Africa with his family in 2013, and accepted a job in Jerusalem to become the director of Jewish study programs for Masa Israel Journey, a government-affiliated organization that provides education and scholarships to young adults. The idea for a kosher sex toy store simmered in the back of his mind. Early last year he mentioned it to a Torah study partner, who’s proficient in Web design, and together they launched the website in August 2014. Alexander’s wife supports the venture.
Word of the online store soon began to spread in the community, and it attracted the attention of Israeli news media. It also agitated Alexander’s employer. Once Masa became aware of his side project, it issued an ultimatum: Either disassociate from the site, or resign his position at the organization. “If you’re working for a company or startup, you need to be in it with all of your soul,” says Sara Eisen, a spokeswoman for Masa. “We all here work 15 hours a day, so you can’t do two huge missions and passions at the same time, and be fair to both. We’re thrilled that Natan is following his dream, and wish him well.” Alexander’s last day was May 7. “I believe in this so passionately that I just left my job. I’m going to work my tush off to make sure the risk I took pays off,” he says.
Alexander wants to turn his e-commerce startup into the “one-stop shop” for religious Jews. Better2gether currently takes orders from Israel, the U.S., the U.K., Australia, and South Africa. The site’s sales are small but growing. Alexander soon hopes to raise about $50,000, a modest sum to fund ongoing development and supplement lost income from his previous job. He’s also planning to expand Better2gether’s educational content and number of on-call therapists trained in dealing with Orthodox sensitivities, as well as offer paid webinars and live events.
Adult brands have tried going after religious Jews before. Southern California’s Trigg Laboratories submitted its Wet lubricants for rabbinical review and said its products were certified kosher in 2013. Such efforts haven’t always been smooth. An Orthodox man from Lakewood, N.J., started a site called Kosher Sex Toys in 2011, which closed last year.
Sexuality is a topic that can elicit explosive reactions from religious Jews. Rabbi Shmuley Boteach says he was amazed at the “ferocity of the backlash” after he published Kosher Sex: A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy in 1999. He remembers his children in tears after bullies on the bus ride home from religious school teased them, saying their father had written a dirty book. Boteach, himself Orthodox, says religious Jews are particularly sensitive to ventures that appear to trivialize or commercialize aspects of their faith.
Expanding into other customer bases won’t be easy, either. Better2gether would have to contend with similar online stores targeting specific religions. For example, Christians can choose from an array of wholesome sex shops, such as Covenant Spice, Bedroom Blessings, Married Dance, and the Pure Bed. Muslims can buy lubricants and other products that supposedly adhere to Islamic law at El Asira’s website and stores.
Unlike with Amazon.com or EBay, Better2gether’s most effective outreach to religious conservatives isn’t an ad on Google or a television commercial. Ultra-Orthodox Jews rarely access the Internet, and when they do, they often employ Web filters to limit the kinds of content that will be shown. The goal is to minimize the chance of unintentionally seeing arousing images or anything else that might be considered sacrilegious. The odds are good that a sex toy shop, even a kosher one, will get flagged.
A Friday morning walk through Mea Shearim is instructive. The streets of this historic Jerusalem neighborhood fill for last-minute purchases before the start of the Sabbath. At the western entrance, a large placard implores women in “immodest dress” to keep out. A recording of a young boy in a high-pitched voice blares: “I beg you in the name of all of Israel’s children, please let us grow up in Torah and fear of God, and not let our lives be corrupted by cell phones and the Internet.”
To find customers, Alexander has implemented a boots-on-the-ground approach to marketing. He’s been building relationships with Orthodox and haredi rabbis throughout Israel in the hopes that they’ll direct couples with romantic issues to his website. He says the strategy is working, but modesty and lingering taboos prevent rabbis from attaching their names to his venture. “We have to reach them on their level,” he says. “So we meet with their rabbis and their doctors. Even though every rabbi in that world that I’ve spoken to reacted positively to the idea, it’s not something I can publicize.”